A number of charities supply oxygen cylinders, PPE kits and ambulance services, while some volunteers assist with burials on behalf of victims' families.
Bashir Ahmad, a 55-year-old resident of Srinagar’s Batamaloo area in Indian-administered Kashmir, was tested for Covid-19 in the second week of April. Three days later, his condition deteriorated when his blood oxygen levels dipped to 75.
He was rushed to a Srinagar hospital where he was admitted and remained on oxygen for a week. Before discharging him, doctors told his family to arrange an oxygen concentrator so his oxygen saturation level is maintained at home.
His son Khalid Ahmad went to various markets to purchase an oxygen cylinder but could not find one. Feeling helpless, Khalid came to hear through one of his relatives about an NGO called SRO Kashmir, which helps patients with oxygen supply.
“I called their helpline number and later received an oxygen concentrator from their office. My father’s condition has now improved and his oxygen saturation is also maintained. The NGO has been a saviour for my father,” he said with a sigh of relief.
A number of NGOs and volunteers have been an oasis of hope for people in restive Kashmir, going into overdrive to help mitigate the suffering of the poor and needy during the pandemic.
These local organisations provide medical equipment including oxygen concentrators, cylinders, personal protection equipment (PPE) kits, and ambulance services. Some have set up helplines to assist people with receiving doctor consultations, helping save numerous lives along the way.
This community lifeline now occurs in the context of a deadly second wave in India, which has seen hospitals packed with patients and widespread shortages of oxygen and medicines. Each day, the country reports more than 300,000 positive cases.
At the same time, hundreds of Kashmiris have dedicated themselves to fight Covid-19 as hospitals are struggling to cope with a relentless inflow of patients mainly complaining of bilateral pneumonia who need oxygen support.
Bashir Ahmad, a 30-year-old from Kashmir’s Pampore area, got panicked last week when his father’s condition deteriorated overnight. His blood oxygen levels had dipped to 65 and he faced breathlessness.
Distressed, Bashir asked a relative to ferry his father to the hospital, but he refused fearing he might get infected.
“I then called helpline number of Help Poor Trust, an NGO, which sent an ambulance during midnight and my father was ferried to SMHS hospital Srinagar, where he is now being treated. Had they not taken my father to the hospital he might have died at home,” he said, expressing gratitude to the NGO, especially the driver, for saving his father.
Kashmir, which is the world’s most militarised zone, has a long history of community support as NGOs and volunteers have always been on the frontline during any crisis whether unrest, curfew, or calamity.
In March last year when the pandemic broke out, Kashmir had seen months of lockdown and communication blockade when the Indian government imposed strict restrictions after it abrogated Article 370, which had previously granted special status to the disputed state.
The number of cases have increased dramatically over the last few weeks. Jammu and Kashmir reports an average of over 3,500 Covid-positive cases a day.
Mohammad Afaaq Saeed, who is associated with SRO Kashmir, said they have been helping people since the pandemic broke out last year.
“SRO Kashmir has kept 250 oxygen cylinders, 223 oxygen concentrators, 250 non-invasive machines, four ambulances and other equipment available for Covid patients. Our volunteers are working 24-7 on the ground to help people. We receive over 70 calls from distraught families of Covid patients for help. The NGO has been receiving financial support from the common people. It is the responsibility of everyone to help people in these crisis times," Saeed said.
The NGO has also established a community graveyard where they have buried three victims since last year.
Mohammad Ali Lone from Help Poor Trust said they have eleven ambulances including one critical care ambulance to ferry patients to hospitals.
“Our volunteers work 24-7. We have 150 oxygen cylinders, 100 oxygen concentrators available for patients. The NGO also provides medicines and financial support to the needy,” Lone said.
Ehsaas International, another NGO has provided thousands of PPE kits to healthcare and sanitation workers besides the common masses since last year. Recently it donated 300 PPE kits to Srinagar Municipal Corporation to be used by its frontline workers for sanitisation exercises.
Hakim Mohammad Ilyas, a representative of the NGO, said they have 60 oxygen concentrators and other medical equipment for patients.
“We have ordered 100 more oxygen concentrators. We are also setting up three wellness centres (50 beds in each centre) in Srinagar for Covid patients in collaboration with Srinagar Municipal Corporation. They will be equipped with oxygen concentrators, cylinders and will have internet facilities, LCD projectors besides indoor game facilities for entertainment. Patients will be treated by volunteer doctors of the NGO,” Ilyas said.
He said they receive good financial support from regular people. “People are generous enough to help us in this cause,” he said.
Ehsaas International has also enlisted 300 Kashmiri doctors from abroad who work to help patients.
“We have made rosters of these doctors who remain available 24-7. They provide free consultation to people on the phone,” he said.
Another NGO Athrout has been distributing masks and providing medicines to the needy. It has also kept more than 200 oxygen concentrators available for patients.
“We also have auto BiBap (Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure) CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure machines besides many medical equipment for the patients,” one of the Athrout volunteers said.
Similarly, volunteers also assist deceased families to bury their loved ones and attend their last rites.
Sajad Ahmad Khan, 39, who runs a grocery shop in the Bemina region of Srinagar, with a group of young volunteers has helped arrange 168 funerals for victims since last year.
He said they had to step in after many of the deceased’s kin refused to perform the last rites of their family members.
“In April last year, one evening I saw relatives of a Covid victim were sitting in their vehicles but not going close to the coffin fearing they might get infected. I ran to my departmental store and took eight PPE kits and gave them to a group of youth who later carried the coffin and buried the dead body in the graveyard,” he recalled.
He later posted on his Facebook page, Athwaas, that he can be contacted if any family wants assistance in carrying out burials.
Since then he has been receiving calls from people - and does everything from carrying a coffin to the graveyard, digging graves and burying the dead.
Sajad provides all the equipment to his team of volunteers like PPE kits and sanitisers. Additionally, he arranges ambulances and other medical equipment and food items for people in need.